Ashley Fox | Talented as ever, T.O. will be in town this week

The player is gone but not forgotten. The Eagles long ago divorced themselves from Terrell Owens. But the fans?

"I think that relationship is kind of like when you have a girlfriend you used to love in the past, maybe high school," Lito Sheppard said Monday, "and you loved her so much, but you hate her so bad now. But you can't stop talking about it."

Oh, really? That's what it is like?

"I know, right?" Sheppard said, laughing.

Sheppard's adolescent love life aside, this is Dallas Cowboys week, and you know what that means. Owens is coming back to Philadelphia for the second time since the Eagles ran him out of town after one of the greatest selfish meltdowns in the history of professional sports. Get your popcorn ready.

With Dallas 6-1 and the hottest team in the NFC outside the state of Wisconsin, this game is about much more than just Owens and the Eagles. In the big picture of the 2007 season, it is a must-win for the Birds. If Donovan McNabb is right and the NFC East does come through Philadelphia - something that sounds more preposterous every time McNabb says it - the Eagles have to beat the Cowboys on Sunday. There is no way around it.

They can't fall to 3-5 at the midway point of the season. They can't squander another shot at a momentum-generating win. And they can't afford another divisional loss. They've got two already, including one at home to Washington. A third, especially at home, and you might as well kiss away any hope of winning the East.

The Cowboys are far from a one-dimensional team. They have the conference's top-ranked offense and defense, and the league's second-best offense behind the juggernaut that is the New England Patriots. Dallas is balanced, with the rushing tandem of Julius Jones and the shifty Marion Barber, and with Tony Romo, he of the new contract extension, under center.

In his first full year as a starter, Romo ranks fifth - behind Tom Brady, David Garrard, Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger - with a 95.6 passer rating. His 62.8 completion percentage is 19th in the league but still pretty good. The nine interceptions are the glaring weakness on an otherwise gaudy stat sheet.

As for Owens, he isn't the Cowboys' leading receiver. That honor goes to tight end Jason Witten, who has 42 catches. But Owens' 556 receiving yards and five touchdown catches are team highs.

Owens isn't on a blistering pace, but he claims to be at peace this season. At peace with his new coach, Wade Phillips, who doesn't simply refer to him as "the player," but who calls him by name. At peace with his quarterback, who is about as affable and easygoing as you'll find at that position in this league. And at peace with his life.

So, a bunch of Eagles fans will affect Owens? It's doubtful.

But the fans will try, nonetheless.

That's part of the fun.

And it sounds like Owens is ready. On Monday, when the Cowboys reconvened after their bye week, Owens reportedly made a soaring Eagle gesture at practice. Fly, Eagles, fly. Think he doesn't have a touchdown dance prepared? Owens likely has been sitting on one for more than year.

You'll remember he had no use for one last season.

As for any lingering hard feelings inside the NovaCare Complex, there seem to be none. "That's a couple years outdated," Sheppard said.

The motivation now is to prevent one of the best receivers in the league from getting his due. That receiver just happens to have the initials T.O. and wear No. 81.

Owens is long and lean, a monster after catching the ball and tough to bring down. Yes, he drops his share of balls, but he makes more plays than he misses. The Eagles know that.

"Any time you go out and cover one of the best receivers to play this game, it's definitely going to be a joy and a challenge," said Sheppard, who insisted his sprained knee ligament is getting healthier every day. "You always want to do well against guys like that, because I mean, hey, they're the best in the league."

Life has a funny way of moving on, and that seems to be the case with the Eagles and Owens' fractured relationship.

The Eagles don't want Owens to beat them inside the Linc, but it's bigger than that. Only once since Andy Reid has been the coach have the Cowboys won in Philadelphia. The Eagles don't want that number to rise.

"We have to play each week like it's our last, because we can't afford to have any more losses," Sheppard said.

As for that old girlfriend? She has a new love, which makes you hate her all the more.

 


Contact staff writer Ashley Fox

at 215-854-5064 or afox@phillynews.com.

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